The story of the current economic recovery is largely one of rising manufacturing productivity. In the US, for example, investment in manufacturing technology has grown an astounding 35% over 2011 levels. This trend looks likely to continue as first-world nations seek ways to compete with developing regions, and as those developing nations face soaring labor costs.
These trends present a huge opportunity for developers creating factory automation equipment. To take advantage of this burgeoning market, developers must deliver systems with cutting-edge performance, connectivity, and security – and the Intel® Core™ and Intel® Atom™ processors can be a big help in meeting these goals.
Let’s start with a look at performance. With the introduction of the Intel® Advanced Vector Extensions (Intel® AVX), Intel® Core™ processors boosted their already significant vector-processing capabilities by a factor of two. This upgrade enables significant advances in production testing such as X-ray and video analysis, as demonstrated in Kontron’s 360° inspection case study (Figure 1). This performance can also be put to work in sophisticated real-time control schemes, allowing developers to replace expensive, proprietary ASICs and FPGAs with software.
Figure 1. 3D scanning to locate and read a 2D barcode.
The forthcoming 3rd generation Intel® Core™ processors will offer even greater performance, along with major upgrades to the graphics and I/O capabilities that can help speed production lines. Portwell just published an article previewing the new features and explaining how to put them to work in the factory.
Another major trend impacting industrial automation is the increasing connectivity of sensors and controllers – both within the factory floor and to back-office sensors (Figure 2). The key buzzwords to know here are cloud computing and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. I recently wrote about these trends, so I won’t cover them in depth here. However, I will note that may legacy systems lack the connectivity and other features needed to meet the needs of today’s factories. One way to overcome this challenge is to use virtualization, a technology that allows multiple operating systems to run on the same platform. With this technology, the legacy automation software can run unchanged on one OS, while new features run on a second OS.
Figure 2. Conenctivity is a key feature in today's factories.
In addition to enabling advanced communications features, virtualization is useful for combining HMI and real-time control on the same platform. This hardware consolidation can improve system cost, size, and power consumption. For two perspectives on this technology, see TenAsys’ article and Maury Wright’s blog.
The other factor to consider when adding communications and other advanced features is the need for greater security. I recently posted an overview of this topic, so again, I won’t dive into the details here. However, I will note that Wind River just posted an excellent piece on security best practices that I consider a must-read. I also recommend reading Kontron’s white paper on embedded security principles.
The links I’ve noted here show just a few examples of the solutions available from the Intel® Intelligent Systems Alliance. With over 200 members, the Alliance provides a wide range of optimized hardware, software, tools, and services designed in close collaboration with Intel. To learn more about the Alliance and its solutions, see intel.com/go/embeddedalliance
Kontron and Portwell are Premier members of the Intel® Embedded Alliance. Wind River is an Associate member and TenAsys is a General member of the Alliance.
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor), Intel® Embedded Alliance
Editor-In-Chief, Embedded Innovator magazine
Follow me on Twitter: @kentonwilliston